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Gonzaga Basketball

‘Far and away the best field I’ve ever seen’: Maui Invitational loaded, even by its lofty standards

HONOLULU – Tournament chairman Dave Odom typically puts together the Maui Invitational’s eight-team field 4-5 years in advance. Someday soon, he’ll place what’s become a customary phone call to Gonzaga coach Mark Few.

“There’s certain teams that I can generally mark down for the trip to Maui every four years, that’s what is allowed by the NCAA,” Odom said in a telephone interview this week. “As soon as this tournament is over, I’ll call Mark and just say, ‘I have you penciled in for, what would it be, 2027.’

“And he’ll say yes because I know how much he enjoys Maui and how valuable Gonzaga is to the tournament.”

Odom also maps out pairings, with feedback from ESPN and consideration of the teams’ time zones. After those are released, participating coaches occasionally call Odom to offer their opinion, but the former South Carolina and Wake Forest coach rarely answers.

But he did when Few dialed up Odom after Gonzaga’s draw was announced in late July – No. 2 Purdue on Monday, possibly No. 7 Tennessee on Tuesday and potentially No. 1 Kansas or No. 4 Marquette on Wednesday.

“You can’t please them all so I don’t take calls from them, particularly in advance politicking for a good draw. When the pairings came out, after 2-3 days I get a call from none other than Mark Few,” said Odom, amused at the memory. “He’s really one of my favorite coaches.

“He said, ‘What are you doing? Did you have anybody check these pairings? You’ve got us playing Purdue and they’ll be in the top five.’ … He’s not a complainer. That’s one I wish somebody would have warned me about when I did it, but it’s fine. It will certainly keep everybody interested.”

Including Few and UCLA coach Mick Cronin, whose Bruins open against Marquette. Both coaches described the field with the same word: “Unbelievable.”

“Of all the years we’ve been doing these Thanksgiving week tournaments, what they call MTEs (multi-team events), this is far and away the best field I’ve ever seen,” Few said. “What is it, 1 (Kansas) and 2 (Purdue) and Marquette. Tennessee is in the top 10, we’re up there and UCLA has been great. I mean yikes, it’s something.”

“Thank goodness it’s not a round robin,” Cronin cracked. “You don’t have to play everyone, you only have to play three teams. Marquette in our first game, before we got to some of the transfer portal things, people had them ranked No. 1 in the way-too-early top 25s. It’s really par for the course in the Maui Invitational.”

No argument there. The tournament is widely regarded as the best of the in-season MTEs, and a lot of that is due to Odom’s recruiting efforts to continually attract college basketball’s top programs.

Odom, chairman since 2009, hesitates to rank the tournament’s fields, but he noted, “I am very pleased, very pleased” with the teams in Honolulu, site of this year’s tournament due to the devastating wildfires in Maui in August.

It’s fair to point out that the pairings generally fell in line with the teams’ rankings. Kansas meets Division II Chaminade, the tourney host. Tennessee tangles with unranked Syracuse. Gonzaga, as the lowest of five ranked teams, probably figured it would open versus a ranked foe, but perhaps not one as high as the second-ranked Boilermakers.

Last year’s tournament was packed with five ranked teams, led by No. 9 Arkansas. No. 14 Arizona edged No. 10 Creighton 81-79 in the title game. The combined ranking of the five was 61 compared to this year’s 25.

The field is star-studded virtually every November, including 2018 when No. 3 Gonzaga outlasted No. 1 Duke 89-87 for the championship. No. 8 Auburn lost to Duke in the semis. No. 6 Duke was among four ranked squads when it captured the 2011 crown.

Unranked Gonzaga didn’t face any top 25 foes in winning the 2009 title over Cincinnati, 61-59, in overtime.

No. 8 Gonzaga beat No. 23 Maryland and No. 12 Michigan State in triple overtime on Adam Morrison’s 43-point masterpiece before falling to No. 3 UConn 65-63 in the 2005 title matchup. The 20th-ranked Zags went 1-2 in 2002, falling to No. 19 Indiana and No. 15 Kentucky.

There were four ranked teams in 2004 and 2006 with UNC the highest at No. 4. Tourneys in 2000, featuring eventual champion and top-ranked Arizona, and 1998 both had four ranked teams. Many of the 1990s tourneys included three ranked teams. The event was a four-team format in its first two years in 1984 and 1985.

Odom said the appeal of the Maui Invitational is two-fold: an alluring destination and an alluring atmosphere inside 2,400-seat Lahaina Civic Center.

“You can’t beat those two,” he said. “That’s why we were so hopeful we’d be able to go back to Maui this year, but it just didn’t work out. We gave ourselves a deadline. There was one week to go and it was still undecided.

“We had some conversations with our people, with the governor, mayor of Maui and some townspeople there and ESPN was involved. As it came together it was clear that we’d be taking too big of risk. So we made the decision and I think it was prudent that we move it. Then came the decision of where to move it. To me, it was logical. We couldn’t give the fans Maui, but we could give them Hawaii. People here have been wonderful.”

Few is a huge fan of Maui and the Maui Invitational.

“We’ve had some incredible times as a family there, just a legacy of pictures of all the kids growing up from all the time we’ve spent there,” he said. “And our time with the Zags, it’s pretty amazing. We have won two championships and then obviously just our following and the way our fans travel and the way they pack that gym.

“It’s a shame it’s not in the small gym, that would be just incredible, but I’m glad it’s in Hawaii.”

The Maui Invitational was hatched after Chaminade pulled off arguably the biggest upset in college basketball history, knocking off Ralph Sampson and No. 1 Virginia in 1982. The Silverswords took down Denny Crum’s Louisville Cardinals the following year and an idea sprouted among Chaminade administrators, with support from Virginia coach Terry Holland, to stage a holiday tournament.

Of course the skilled storyteller Odom had a connection.

“When I come back here, every year if I’m asked to talk at a gathering, the people that introduce me always say, ‘And Dave Odom was on the staff at Virginia that lost to Chaminade,’ ” Odom said. “So I always say, ‘How many times must one person lose one game.’ ”